In the first chapter of his book “Five Proofs of the Existence of God”, Edward Feser gives an Aristotelian Argument for the existence of God. In this essay, I will argue that even granting that there is a purely actual cause, Feser’s argument fails to establish that it’s unique, omnipotent, omniscient, or a morally good agent. Furthermore, I will argue that even granting for the sake of the argument that there is a unique, omnipotent, omniscient purely actual cause, Feser’s argument fails to establish that it is a morally good agent, whereas a different argument – that I give elsewhere - establishes that is it not so.
Feser argues that a purely actual cause must be unique, because two different things of the same kind are differentiated by having one or more differences in their perfections or privations, but the first cause has no privations and is maximally perfect.
According to Feser, a privation is “the absence of some feature a thing would naturally require so as to be complete. It involves the failure to realize some potential inherent in a thing.”, and he says that something is perfect if “it has actualized its potentials and is without privations”. At this point, one could raise an objection to Feser’s claims about privations and perfections, but here I intend to raise a different objection, so I will grant for the sake of the argument that something is perfect if it has actualized its potentials and is without privations [a].
My objection to Feser’s argument for the uniqueness of the purely actual cause – granting for the sake of the argument that there is at least one purely actual cause - is that things of different kinds can be distinguished by features other than unrealized potentials, and Feser’s argument fails to establish that there is a unique kind of purely actual causes[a].
Note that in the case of causes that are not purely actual, that is how things go:[a] For example, an electron and a neutrino do not need to be distinguished because of differences in their unactualized potentials. Even if all electrons and all neutrinos have some unrealized potentials, it is not the case that an electron can be distinguished from a neutrino only by unrealized potentials. They can be distinguished by having different realized potentials. Similarly, a mosquito, a tapeworm and a lion are distinguished by many features other than unrealized potentials, even if they also have unrealized potentials. But Feser’s argument does not show that the number of kinds of purely actual causes – unlike causes that are not purely actual - is one. It only establishes that there cannot be more than one purely actual causes of the same kind – a result that is compatible with there being two, a few or very many purely actual causes, one of each kind.
Granted, Feser argues for a purely actual cause on the basis of hierarchical considerations, and it might be argued that on that basis, it can be established that there is only one kind. That might or might not be so, but in this context, in any case it would have to be argued for, as it is not clear. For example, there might be some purely actual causes actualizing different not purely actual things, with different and separated hierarchies, etc. Now, I’m not suggesting that this is so – in fact, I don’t even believe in purely actual causes -, but rather, I’m arguing that Feser’s argument fails to rule out such alternatives to uniqueness, among others.
2. Omnipotence and omniscience.
Feser’s argument in support of the omnipotence of the first cause uses the premise that the first cause is unique. But as I have argued above, his argument for uniqueness fails. And since he’s not established uniqueness, Feser has not established omnipotence, either. Similarly, Feser’s argument for omniscience is based on uniqueness, and for that reason – at least -, it does not succeed. [b]
From now on, I will however grant for the sake of the argument that there is a unique, omnipotent, omniscient, purely actual cause, and will argue that even then, Feser’s argument fails to establish that the cause is a morally good agent, or indeed that it is morally good in the sense that would be relevant in this case.
3. Good mosquitoes.
Consider further that a thing is good, in a general sense, to the extent that it realizes the potentials inherent in it as the kind of thing it is, and bad to the extent that it fails to realize them.
From that, he concludes that a purely actual cause of the world, which has no potential, is fully good.
Let’s consider what it is to be good in this context.
For example, a good mosquito would be one that realizes the potentials inherent in it as a member of the kind “mosquito”. But then again, not being a morally good person [c] is not an unrealized potential of the mosquito. It’s not part of the mosquito’s potential to be a morally good person, in the usual sense of the expression “morally good person”. More broadly, it is not part of the potential of a mosquito to be a morally good agent, where “agent” is used in a broad sense, so as to encompass persons but also any multi-person substances that might exist – assuming that that is coherent -, or intelligent aliens who are psychologically vastly different from humans - regardless of whether they would properly be qualified as persons -, etc.
Now, it might be suggested that in the case of rational beings, it is an unrealized potential not to be a morally good agent, and so if there is a rational purely actual cause, it is a morally good agent – and indeed, a morally perfect one. But Feser has not established that in the argument under consideration or even attempted to do so, and it seems indeed very improbable. For example, let’s consider the following hypothetical scenario: on some planet in a distant galaxy, there are intelligent aliens (say, species #12182 to give them a name) that evolved from something very different from monkeys – maybe from something like, say, squid. Those aliens make spaceships and are very capable of logic, reason, language, etc., but instead of morality, they have some analogue, say #12182-morality. Now a #12182 alien may have the potential for being a #12182-morally-good agent, but not a morally good one. This sort of view is of course not compatible with Feser’s metaethics, but Feser has not showed it – or many other variants - is false, and that there are no such aliens, let alone that they beings like those are metaphysically impossible. Now the following scenario highlights the problem of the relevant senses of “good”: Surely, if the omnipotent, omniscient, unique purely actual cause is psychologically such that it values #12182-moral-goodness over moral goodness, it definitely would not count as morally perfect or morally good in the sense that is relevant for theistic arguments, even though it would be fully good in the sense that it would not fail to realize any of its potentials.
So, even granting that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, unique purely actual cause that is an agent, Feser’s argument does not establish that said cause is a morally good agent, in the relevant sense of that expression.
In fact, I have argued elsewhere that if there is an omnipotent, omniscient agent, said agent is not a morally perfect agent, or even a morally good one. That argument does not assume that the omnipotent, omniscient agent is a purely actual cause, but it does not assume that it is not, either, so it is applicable in this context as well.
Even granting for the sake of the argument that there is a purely actual cause, Feser’s argument fails to establish that it is unique, omniscient, omnipotent or morally perfect. Even granting for the sake of the argument the uniqueness, omnipotence and omniscience of the assumed purely actual cause, Feser’s argument fails to establish moral perfection or even moral goodness, in the relevant sense of those terms. A different argument establishes that an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect agent does not exist, independently of the question of pure actuality.
[a] I’m not conceding that an Aristotelian or Aristotelian-Thomistic view of kinds and potentials is correct. I’m just granting for the sake of the argument as much about that sort of view as I find useful to raise my objections.
[c] It might be objected that a purely actual omniscient, eternal, etc., cause is not agent in the usual sense of “agent”, and so the fact that it’s not a morally good agent is unproblematic. I think this is not true. I think “agent” is a correct term, and I’ve chosen it deliberately because it is broad and does not make in my assessment controversial ontological claims. However, it should be clear as I make the rest of my argument, even if “agent” is not the right word, this objection would miss my point. The objection I’m raising here does not hinge on the issue of what an agent is, so you might pick the term you find more suitable (e. g., person, personal substance, or whatever you think is best).